Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger guesses that the roaring twenties didn't roar as loud in rural Bavaria.
"We don't want a baby for the moment, all right?"—Hanni
New Yorker Video continues its "Worst Films by Great Directors" series with The Stationmaster's Wife.
Facts of the Case
Hanni Bolwieser (Elisabeth Trissenaar, Angry Harvest) is married to Stationmaster Xaver Bolwieser (Kurt Raab, Angry Harvest) in 1920s-era Bavaria. A Stationmaster is apparently a government lackey who yells at lazy ticket takers and stews alone in his office for long hours at a time. This gives the bored, spicy Hanni plenty of time to sample other men in the hamlet, rather like shoppers might try on shoes. Chief among them is Franz Merkl (Bernhard Helfrich, director and star of many German television programs), an ambitious butcher, who gives Hanni his meat on a regular basis. The cuckolded and henpecked Stationmaster can only cast a blind eye and try to ignore the petty laughter of the horrible townspeople before he cracks and makes a pathetic stand.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder has done great work. You could pick one of his films at random and you'd likely discover a precisely framed, socially complex, and scathing commentary on German society. One of his comparable films, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, shares The Stationmaster's Wife's focus on a socially unacceptable relationship that is subject to the voyeurism of small-minded townsfolk. With Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Fassbinder proved himself an adroit, gifted filmmaker with a knack for subversive commentary. He used composition like a gifted surgeon would use a scalpel; you hardly notice the delicate changes being wrought on you through his surgically precise intent.
The Stationmaster's Wife displays flashes of that same great skill, but it's as though Fassbinder were stuck using a dull hacksaw instead of a scalpel. His camerawork bludgeons you over the head with his themes. "Hey, look!" it says, "Hanni's between two guys, and staring lustily at one while repressing her husband into the corner! Look! This screeching, caged bird represents Xavier's frustrated manhood! Hey, do you think that Xavier's extended arm is a 'subtle' warning to other men to stay away from his hot-to-trot wife?" Fassbinder can be subtle, though he often prefers bold visuals. The Stationmaster's Wife tramples all over bold and heads straight for "over-theatrical drama queen" territory.
I can't tell if the full frame aspect ratio stifles Fassbinder's expansive sense of composition, or whether New Yorker's dull, bleary transfer renders the composition moot. The film (which is really a re-edited made-for-TV movie) opens with a loud background hiss and messy grain that persist throughout the runtime. With wretched color fidelity and blurry detail, Fassbinder's cramped, obscured designs become a mess of green and gray. The music is thin, distorted, and reedy. Weird technical gaffes such as the brick-orange blob in this screen capture lead me to suspect the transfer and not the source.
The plot is excruciatingly slow, and as obvious as the camerawork. From the moment that Hanni pushes her husband away in the opening scene (under the lame pretense that they don't want a baby right now), I knew his doom. The next 100 minutes drag out this inevitable fate, and fail to spice it up with anything more interesting. When Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News called this "one of Fassbinder's most entertaining films," she forgot to specify whether the intended audience was self-centered mental patients suffering from borderline personality disorder. The characters in this television adventure are so small-minded and predictable that I failed to find many interesting dynamics among them. By the end of the film, I wouldn't have cared (in fact, would have welcomed it) if a large anvil fell from the sky and squished them all flat.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My dislike isn't the fault of the actors. Trissenaar and Raab capably center the film with their characters' twisted cycles. Her cycle is hot-cool; come here, now go away. I love you; I'm bored of you now. His is more of a periodic surge, where Xaver gets so fed up with being henpecked that he mounts a tepid counterattack of masculine bravado. In the most memorable of these attacks, Xaver thrusts into Hanni and spits over her neck and face. Raab becomes twisted and bitter in this scene while Trissenaar's calculating, eyelid-hooded equanimity is briefly shattered until she reasserts her dominance through histrionics. For awhile, their acting was good enough that I thought The Stationmaster's Wife was going to be an interesting case study of folie a deux.
The Stationmaster's Wife has some good scenes. The opening credits roll over a frozen frame that is so tightly composed, I couldn't make out what was onscreen. When the directorial credit vanished, the scene came to life with vigorous post-marital fondling. The image was startling and effective in conveying the theme of the film. Later, when Xaver is leaving the pub, gut-wrenching laughter follows him out the door. My ears burned for him. And though The Stationmaster's Wife is generally obtuse in its composition, periodic clever blocking allows Fassbinder to make pointed social comments.
I found The Stationmaster's Wife both obvious and forced. It is a cramped mess of uninteresting human disarray. If you still care about any of these characters by the time the end credits show up, you have more empathy and patience than I. Perhaps if the DVD audio and video had been cleaner or some extras existed to enlighten me, I might have gotten more out of it. As it stands, I can only recommend The Stationmaster's Wife to Fassbinder fans or those with a much deeper understanding of German social norms than me.
Bring forth the giant anvil!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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